Mama Love & Breast Cancer Awareness Month Tuesday, Oct 18 2011 

I am a “mama’s girl.”

Mama and I travel quite a bit together. I love to ask her to come with me to book signings and cooking classes. I get a huge pleasure out of seeing folks ask her for her autograph. She’s got quite the following! Seeing my beaming proud mama in the front row of my cooking class also makes me smile.

It’s not all work. We take vacations together, too. We’ve tromped up steep, long, winding stairs in Italy, across sun-bleached limestone roads in Turkey, and wet cobblestone streets in London. She’s joyfully joined me in France for cheese, chocolate, and croissants; been starved, stretched, and sunned at the spa in Mexico; and held my hand and wiped my tears on one perfectly miserable trip to Hawaii.

Mama is now a dear friend to the new love in my life. It gives me infinite pleasure to see two of the most important people in my life enjoying one another, relating, talking. Being.

My Mama is my best friend.

We talk nearly every day. She’s heard plenty from me; that’s for sure. She celebrates my joys and blessings and consoles me when something goes wrong. We don’t always agree, by a long shot. And, we have very different attitudes on life in general. She was the baby girl, grew up in the country, and never worked when I was growing up. I am the oldest, have lived all over the world, and my work and my life are intertwined to the point of nonrecognition. One is not complete without the other.

As different as we are, there’s something in her saying, “It’ll be okay” that makes me believe it will – that somehow she knows that it will really, truly be okay.

Our daily calls started when Meme passed away. We were both devastated.  So, we started calling each other to see if the other was okay, to check on each other, to make sure. Ten years later, we call each other at least once a day, usually at night even if it’s just 2 minutes to say, “I love you.”

During the day or if one of us calls the other at an unexpected time as soon the other answers the phone, we’ll quickly say, “Everything’s okay – nothing’s wrong.”

One day in 2002 Mama called and it wasn’t okay.

I was grocery shopping and picked up my cell phone. I was in the parking lot of Whole Foods in Sandy Springs. She didn’t say those magic words as soon as she heard my voice. Instead, she said the words that no one wants to hear, “They’ve found something.”

They.

“They” are instantly known and identified – the harbingers of both good and evil, happiness and sadness, joy and despair – wearing lab coats over dusty blue scrubs.

My world went instantly blinding white. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t hear. All I could feel was my heart pounding in my chest. Somehow I could feel the blood rushing, crashing through my body, through my brain.

Blinking, blinking.

It’s that moment when you realize it’s happening to you. It’s not a story about someone else. It’s not a magazine story or on the news. It’s not your friend’s mama. It’s not a sad story in the paper that makes you shake your head. It’s you. It’s your mama.

I don’t remember crying. I don’t think I did.

Mama, like always, said in her soft Southern drawl, “It’ll be okay, I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right, Gin.”

She calls me Gin, sometimes Missy Gin. Me, adamantly the woman of no nicknames, but I love it.

Regarding her call, frankly, I don’t remember much other than that. Somehow I made it home. And, I think I called and told my sister. I honestly don’t remember. I have absolute zero recollection.

I went home – home to Mama – in the next days and we went to the doctor.

The surgeon said it was small. The surgeon said it was the kinder, gentler breast cancer. The surgeon said it was caught early and that she’d be fine.

“She’d be fine” didn’t sound anything remotely like “It will be okay” to me.

The first visit to the oncologist was surreal. The office was full of sickness and death. Pale hairless faces haunted with the look of fear. It was perfectly clear what we were up against.

I felt the blood rushing and crashing again.

Once in the examination room I asked so many questions the doctor looked at me and asked me what part of the medical profession I was in.

I evenly replied, “I am not; it’s my Mama.” To me that succinctly explained everything….

Thankfully, the surgeon was right. She was fine. She was all right. Mama had a small lump removed. Her lymph nodes were clean. She didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy. She had several months of radiation.

My mama is now 9 years cancer-free.

Her kinder, gentler breast cancer was caught by a routine mammogram.

This month is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. If you are 40, go get a mammogram. If you are over 40 and late on your mammogram, call and make an appointment. NOW.

You know who you are. Do it. Do it, dammit.

You are loved and the world is a better place with you in it.

And, while you are at it, call your mama and tell her you love her or call your daughter and tell her you love her. Call any woman you love and tell her you love her.

Peace be with you.
VA

Mama’s Pecan Pie
Makes two 9-inch pies

Too many pecan pies are mostly goo without enough pecans, making them far too sweet. The secret to the success of this pie is that its pecan-to-goo ratio is just right. As a child, I helped Mama make this pie. It was my job to help her coarsely grind the nuts. She still uses a hand-held grinder; it has a crank that forces the nuts through two opposing fork-like blades and a glass jar to catch the nut pieces. The metal top that screws into the glass jar is bent and dinged, but the tool still coarsely cuts the nuts just right.

Double recipe All-American Pie Crust (see below)
3 large eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare 2 unbaked 9-inch pie shells.
To make the filling, combine the eggs, sugar, corn syrup, butter, vanilla, and salt in a bowl; stir until blended. Add the pecans and stir to combine. Pour into the chilled pie shells.

Bake the pies, rotating once, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Remove the pies to a wire rack to cool. The pies can be stored wrapped tight in aluminum foil or in a pie safe (at room temperature) for up to 1 week.

All-American Pie Crust
pastry for 1 (9-inch) pie crust

1¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ cup solid vegetable shortening, preferably Crisco, chilled and cut into pieces
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
3 to 8 tablespoons ice water

In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the flour and salt, then add the vegetable shortening and butter. Process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds.

Add the ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing to mix, until the dough holds together without being sticky or crumbly. Shape the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.

Flour a clean work surface and a rolling pin. (If you are making a double-crust pie or two pie shells, work with one disk at a time, keeping the second disk chilled.) Place a dough disk in the center of the floured surface. Starting in the center of the dough, roll to, but not over, the upper edge of the dough. Return to the center, and roll down to, but not over, the lower edge. Lift the dough, give it a quarter turn, and lay it on the work surface. Continue rolling, repeating the quarter turns, until you have a disk about 1/8 inch thick.

Ease the pastry into a 9-inch pie plate. To keep your crust from shrinking or tearing, snuggle your dough into the pie plate by lifting the edges and letting the weight settle it into the plate contours. Trim 1 inch larger than the diameter of the pie plate; fold the overhanging pastry under itself along the rim of the plate. For a simple decorative edge, press the tines of a fork around the folded pastry. To make a fluted edge, using both your finger and thumb, pinch and crimp the folded dough. Chill in the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.

To blind bake, preheat the oven to 425°F. Crumple a piece of parchment paper, then lay it out flat over the bottom of the pastry. Weight the paper with pie weights, dried beans, or uncooked rice. This will keep the unfilled pie crust from puffing up in the oven.

For a partially baked shell that will be filled and baked further, bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and remove the paper and weights. (You can reuse the rice or beans for blind baking a number of times.) The shell can now be filled and baked further, according to recipe directions. For a fully baked shell that will hold an uncooked filling, bake the pie shell until it is a deep golden brown, about 30 minutes total.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Top photo by Helene Dujardin

Others by me.

My Day in NYC on 9/11 Friday, Sep 9 2011 

This picture of my sister was taken in August, just a few weeks before the tragedy in 2001. Last year when I wrote my original post, I hadn’t ever written a word about 9/11.

I’ve been pretty somber this week, as many have been, on the 10th anniversary with all the additional press, new photos, and new audio. I looked at photographs yesterday online that made me absolutely shiver.

I reworked this piece just a bit, but, I think, at least for a while, this will remain my blog post for 9/11. 

I remember that morning very plainly, that crisp, clear September morning.

I was living in Jersey City and would take the PATH train into the city for work. Our street was clean and tidy, but the walk along the main street was cluttered and trashy.

We didn’t live in a bad neighborhood; it was simply urban living.

Sadly, somehow I have always constantly, somewhat obsessively, wondered about the socio-economics of garbage. It used to drive me absolutely mad, how much sheer waste people used to carelessly throw on the ground.

So, I walked that morning, not looking at the cotton-white clouds strewn across the brilliant cerulean blue sky, but at the litter on the sidewalk, the empty, dented cans and bottles, the plastic bags whirling in the wind across the cement, the crumpled, greasy sacks of fast food, and the oily, iridescent psychedelic rainbows in the jagged potholes at every corner and crosswalk.

I remember walking mad.

Can you imagine? Walking mad? Letting filth, garbage, other people’s refuse distress me so? Why do I remember this?

It turns out that my disgust and  irritation actually saved me from watching the first plane hit the first tower.

I know this.

I walked this walk every day —  most often amazed, looking skyward at those tall twin towers across the river directly in my sight. They were a compass point. The papers, the news, the sources on the internet proclaimed the timing second by second, minute by minute of the deadly attack in the days and weeks to come.

I know that I was walking exactly at that exact time.

I didn’t see one of the most horrific things in history because I was looking down at garbage.

Often I would take the PATH from Jersey City to the WTC and then change on the subway to go uptown, but even though I was running late, I waited for the train to take me to 33rd street so I’d only have to make one change.

I’ve thought about that quite a bit in these past years, not taking the train to the WTC.

I could have been right in the middle of it.

By the time I changed to the subway and exited the station on 40th Street the streets were buzzing with rumors, that a plane had hit the tower.

I assumed it was a small plane, maybe a private jet.

Once in the office it was clear something else was going on. Cell phones weren’t working and internet access was spotty. Someone said the mall was under attack in DC, then it was declared the pentagon was hit, then the White House.

I was the producer for Epicurious on the Discovery Channel hosted my chef Michael Lomonaco. We didn’t know where he was.

I called my now-frantic family to let them know I was okay.

But, I was in Times Square and which actually didn’t feel very okay at all. If the US was under attack, Time Square might likely be dead center next.

So, we walked down 25 floors of the winding darkened stairwell, it wasn’t far and it wasn’t because we were in imminent danger. It somehow seemed like the sensible thing to do. I had no desire to be caught in an elevator.

The bridges and tunnels were closed. The subway wasn’t running. I had called a friend and she said to meet her at her apartment on the Lower East Side. Manhattan was under lock-down.

I knew I couldn’t get home.

So, I started walking southeast from Midtown. People were huddled at cars with doors and windows open at street corners listening to the radio. The sound of sirens and the gnawing pull of fear were omnipresent. I saw one act of vandalism, someone breaking into a pay phone. It gave me chills. The concept of being in a lawless New York City was terrifying in and of itself.

At one point I could see the towers smoldering and smoking against the blue sky, and then at the next corner, when they would have been in sight again, they were gone.

Just gone.

As I walked South, soon I saw people walking covered in grey dust and soot. I kept walking further south, then east. I finally arrived at my friend’s apartment on 5th Street on the Lower East Side. She wasn’t home, yet, so I took my shoes off and waited on the stoop. Seems like I remember now that my shoes were new and my feet were blistered. At the time it seemed unimportant and now, I am not certain.

My cell couldn’t call out, it was silent, but somehow my friend and colleague Faye was able to call me. She was my mouthpiece. She called my Mama to tell her I was okay. She called home. She called, she called, she called. She called home for me.

My friend finally arrived home. We quietly walked up the stairs. We then watched the news, silently weeping, watching the horror, the live images, the flying shreds of paper, the grey dust, the people — the absence of survivors, of people — trying, all the while, to keep the children occupied in the other room.

We were in shock and disbelief.

Finally, at the end of the very long day, the news reported the PATH was reopened at 14th. I didn’t care about what might happen to me. I wanted to go home, I wanted to feel safe. My friend didn’t want me to leave.

I wanted to go home.

We kissed, we cried, and cell phone dead, I started walking. I walked alone. The lack of sound was astonishing. It was like a movie set. New York City, but without the people.

No more sirens. No more noise. No radios. No one driving. No one honking. No one on the streets. No people. The avenues were empty and desolate. The occasional car would pass armed with a bullhorn encouraging people to go give blood.

It was dreamlike and surreal.

I walked North through Union Square where literally only two candles flickered, the beginning of the massive combination of shrine and wall of missing person posters that eventually established itself on that spot.

The 14th station was closed, so I walked further to 23rd, also closed, so onward to 33rd.

Finally, success.

The cavernous station was packed. People were elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, but you could have heard a pin drop.

Everyone was muted and paralyzed  in fear and shock.

We crossed under the river to Hoboken because my regular station was destroyed and closed. Standing on the platform as we pulled into the station, I saw evacuees from lower Manhattan, covered in soot and ash, now clothed in garbage bags.

Garbage bags.

Tell your loved ones that you love them.
Peace be with you.
VA

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